So just forget about Yo-Yo Ma for a moment, and imagine a new kind of musical ensemble: smaller than an orchestra but bigger than a rock band and kitted out with the soul of a string quartet, the rhythm section of a jazz band, and a few more-familiar-sounding but hard-to-place exotic instruments. Now add 11 of the most happening, up-to-the-minute players in the known world and a constantly evolving repertoire of brilliant, genre-defying new music, and you are beginning to get close to what the Silk Road Ensemble has to offer. Okay, now add Yo-Yo Ma back in — not as a player for this particular performance but as the original musical mentor, practical patron, and spiritual leader of the project.
Good, now you’re nearly ready for what’s coming to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on October 24. The current edition of the Silk Road Ensemble has a new CD, A Playlist Without Borders, and a new DVD, The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma: Live From Tanglewood, both released just last month by Sony Masterworks. They also have the momentum of a project that has exceeded some very high expectations. Like a musical big bang, the Silk Road Project has spun off multiple other outstanding ensembles, including several headquartered in Brooklyn. In the last decade, it has become the musical shot heard literally around the world.
How did this happen? I spoke last week with violist Nicholas Cords, who has performed with the Silk Road Ensemble almost from the beginning. He talked about the group and the music, as well as the impact of the project on the contemporary music scene.
So you will be appearing without Yo-Yo Ma this time but with a great and interesting group of players. Why is that? Short answer: Yo-Yo has a lot to do. Longer answer: He wants to share responsibility with the group, and his approach as a leader is emblematic of that. Everybody in the Ensemble is capable of carrying the torch, but greatness comes in the letting go.
You are in a couple of groups, including Brooklyn Rider and The Knights, which spawned out of the Silk Road Project. What can you say about the way that Silk Road has influenced the music scene? It has been a fantastic incubator, and I think that’s because of the layers of history embedded in great music. We came together for the Silk Road Project in the spirit of mutual education and with goals of sharing and communicating what we knew with other great musicians who knew different stuff. And once we got that process going, the question became, what can a musician do to create something that is good for society? because that’s not just Yo-Yo Ma’s thing; it’s what we are all trying to do. Like Cristina Pato, who has a new jazz release on her own and who runs a great music festival in Galicia, Spain. Or look at [cellist] Mike Block, who has spun out a kind of empire of the alternative for himself. We have come up with a different kind of engine with this organization, and we’ve redefined what an artist can do. There’s no longer one answer to that question.
How did your 2004 trip to Iran influence what you are doing? The trip to Iran was really the turning point, especially for Colin [Jacobsen, of Brooklyn Rider and The Knights]. He had never really written original music before that, but he saw in Kayhan [Kalhor] a model of the performer/composer that he could relate to. We began referring to ourselves as “the brotherhood of strings.” In Santa Barbara, we’ll be playing a piece he wrote about our visit there, “Atashgah,” which is about a Zoroastrian fire temple that’s more than 2,000 years old.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents the Silk Road Ensemble at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, October 24, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.